Instructor's Paradigm Shifts
-- a university of arizona course on methods and approaches for studying the future

Paradigms can be thought of as models or patterns for thinking about or valuing a situation, or as a framework that identifies a set of rules we live by. When these "paradigms" change, we have a paradigm shift. Such shifts represent a change in these "rules we live by" and knowing that the shift is occurring and in what direction is a very useful piece of information. Additional discussion and examples of paradigms are available.

Some consider that a large number of paradigms are in force at any time, and others look only at the few significant/ubiquitous ones. These later are few in number so they can be understood and viewed as a context-setting device or operating framework for more specific discussions. In short, when you understand the few major paradigm shifts underway, you have a better chance of making the appropriate decision, even in absence of sufficient data. 

The important factor is to recognize when shifts occur between the major paradigms, so you can operate in the context of future changes rather than the past.

To get a broad perspective or the role of futures techniques, you might review the seminar on futures techniques, or the seminar on books about the future. You can also go to the scenarios options page. Paradigms should be reviewed in relation to driving forces (and you should not be confused by the two). Examples of driving forces are defined elsewhere and you can also see mine. Or, you can view a list of what futurists in general think about driving forces.

Paradigms are large scale patterns

Such patterns, when changed to another pattern, can be called paradigm shifts, and form the underlying structure for talking about the future. They are pervasive and would be included in the driving forces as well as scenarios. They are the "unwritten rules" of how the emerging society might function. The following paradigm shifts indicate my views of four primary paradigm shifts underway (listed alphabetically):

  Personalization with Group Perspective - The ability to "personalize" rather than be uniform affects organizations and individuals. Individuals, organizations, and countries will have greater flexibility in making things personalized to them (e.g., school curriculum, approaches to learning, personalized mail, customized ordering, health care options) and at the same time they will be working more with groups (e.g., teams/coalitions, alliances/partnerships, organizations, countries), and addressing societal issues (e.g., diversity, peace, trade) as well as the specific purposes of the organization. Think globally while acting locally is an example. Some people refer to this is "mass customization" (but that term is too narrow to describe the effect), where you can customize for an individual while still selling large numbers of products.

  Sustainability - Sustainability covers a lot of topics - cultures, learning (continuing), economic needs, development of all types, population and resources. It addresses some of the emerging issues such as the increasing ratio of old plus young people to those in the workforce, and the need for understanding of many diverse topics (e.g., cultures, species, approaches). Some components of a shift to a more sustainable future might include: 1) global and interconnected, 2) cooperation and communication, 3) values and ethics (including responsible care or behavior), 4) historical perspectives as fundamental driving forces, 5) human/nature interface and compatibility, 6) long term perspectives rather than short term, 7) living with uncertainty, innovation, constraint, voluntary simplicity, 8) flexible and highly communicative, and 9) self fulfillment, personalization, lifelong learning, spirituality. You can also think of sustainability is a way of "mimicking nature" (from: Bill McDonough).

  Values and Lifestyles - Change affects the way we view things and how we interact with others. Our long-held values often shift to incorporate new directions (but they may not). This difference in values causes conflicts between holders of the old values, those that hold the new ones, or those that just have different values. As change takes place due to science and technology, or peace and war, or migration/economic conditions, the way we live and interact with others also changes. Conflict occurs when the some people hold on to the old values too long and cannot fit within the emerging societal "norms" or when they embrace the new values too soon and before they are truly understood to be a legitimate change. Values here can mean deeply held viewpoints that are based on religion or political/social origins (including cultures) or those that are seemingly intrinsic to human nature. Value systems are the driving forces of many choices and are basic to making change, but are not often recognized as being important when anticipating the future. Often you do not know what a person's values are and therefore do not under how they might react to change. Values from other cultures are also important change factors - as the relative mix of immigrants into the United States and other countries changes, other cultures are exposed to new perspectives and the dominant culture is exposed to the cultures of the immigrants - everyone needs to interact with other people's values. This process then changes your own values (by all groups involved) and you may or may not know your values are being shifted or even recognize they are changing.

  World Order - For the last 50+ years, the Cold War set the stage for which nations were the most powerful leaders. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the world order began to change and by 2000 the United States was recognized widely as the only super power (having only one world super power was a new thing and just what that meant in a practical sense was unclear). In 2001 the terrorist attack on the United States again changed popular opinion of the appropriate US role, even though the military has long prepared for a shift to terrorism/regional conflict and away from the old two major super powers. How a single super power operates and is seen by other countries affects everything, and began to change in 2003. It is clear that a single superpower cannot operate unilaterally; the question is how world order will change and evolve now that this is understood. Frequently the real drivers of choices in these complex matters are the unstated values held by individuals, organizations or groups. For example, definitions of family, tolerance of other's views, and viewpoints on work and pleasure - and realignments of nations following the Cold War's end, have much in common. How we address world-wide issues depends on having a structure that is relatively stable. Since world is very mixed in terms of population distribution, economic power, values, and resources, it is not simple to come up with structures that give most parties a say. This is especially a problem when those that have been leadership roles in the past must modify their roles to address the different needs of the future. A current example is the United Nations and how how powerful nations work together with other powerful nations or nations with no power.

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Prepared by Roger L. Caldwell